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An atheist’s Christmas…

Manado Christmas stories
Patrick Guntensperger
Manado, North Sulawesi, Indonesia
It’s the middle of the night, or rather very early in the morning, hours before sunrise. I’m awake and writing because I spent Boxing Day shuttling between bed and bathroom with a short-lived but particularly nasty bout of what was probably some sort of food poisoning. Now after having slept most of the day, I can’t sleep. If the really unpleasant symptoms had no tstarted to show signs of clearing up just an hour or so ago, I would have been pretty sure I had come down with Typhoid Fever again. And that, gentle readers,is no picnic, I assure you.
Several years ago, I had travelled by inter-island ship from Jakarta to Manado (I have written more extensively about that trip elsewhere; in the blog,try looking under the travel label) by way of Surabaya, Makassar, Ambon and several smaller ports of call, also to spend the Christmas holidays with Yolanda’s family here in Manado. Far from having been a relaxing and fascinating ocean voyage through some of the world’s most beautiful and exotic waters, it was a nightmarish journey through the seven circles of hell. On that voyage I came down with typhoid fever shortly after setting out. The typhoid was the result of the disgustingly unsanitary conditions on the criminally overcrowded boat.
By the time I got to Manado, Iwas drifting in and out of consciousness, severely dehydrated, and several pounds lighter. I was rushed to the hospital where I was treated and a few days later was just turning around when I was apparently visited by a mosquito who kindly deposited the dengue fever virus into my already depleted system. I won’t bore you (or gross you out) with the details –  it’s easy enough to find information onTyphoid and Dengue Fevers – but suffice it to say that my dengue, perhaps because of my typhoid-weakened condition went hemorrhagic and it took a month to get back on my feet and six months before I felt like myself again. I spent Christmas and New Year’s in a coma; karma biting me on the ass for all my vocal bitching and whining about how much I hate Christmas.
I probably caught yesterday’s bug as the result of having been dragged against my will to a christening or baptism or something of an infant to whom I am apparently distantly related. Given my outspoken atheism, or more precisely, my antitheism, perhaps I ought to justify my hypocrisy in attending a ceremony of that sort; I can’t. Cowardice? A desire to maintain a degree of harmony in my family? Being outnumbered a couple of hundred to one? A sociological curiosity regarding avisit to poor Christian villagers in a predominantly Muslim country? All of the above? None of the above? Whatever. I went.
Indonesians, like people in many developing countries, place a great deal of emphasis on family; everyone has a large extended family with literally hundreds of people whom each can name, i fnot identify by the specifics of the relationship. In this case I was able to trace my relationship to the christening’s guest of honour relatively easily.My wife Yolanda has a sister, Fallyandra. She is married to Yono who comes froma very poor family. Yono has a bunch of sisters, one of whom had a baby a month or two ago and was apparently in dire need of being introduced to god.
I didn’t have a camera,
so this is a similar kampong from the ‘net
We packed about nine people into a Land Rover and drove through a torrential downpour over rutted roads that were becoming rivers to Yono’s family’s kampong in the Manado outskirts and fortunately arrived late. The house where Yono’s parents and younger siblings live has a bare concrete floor in the main room and dirt floors elsewhere else. The toilet is little more than a hole in the ground with a sarong hung over the doorway for privacy. The kitchen is a concrete-walled, dark, filthy room where dogs and chickens wander in and out; rotting meat trimmings and bones of butchered animals litter the slimy mud floor and are shoveled out when they become too offensive or abundant, or too attractive to the rats. The women sit on rattan mats on what, in the monsoon season, is a mud floor to prepare food for dozens of people under hygienic conditions that would induce projectile vomiting in a Cro-Magnon. Since we arrived late and the occasion was SRO, we had to come in through this room; the first thing I noticed was a pair of severed dogs’ heads that had just been tossed toward thejungle from the kitchen.
From the main room, which had the only seats left, we could see out to the gathering area, a concrete pad with a thatched roof and no walls. Here, a few dozen plastic chairs had been arranged in rows and a podium had been set up in front. Behind all that several makeshift trestle tables were set with a row of perhaps fifteen big stainless steel warming dishes and one huge container of steaming rice. A priest was haranguing the audience, all dressed in their Christmas finery, which consists of their best batik and new flip-flops. The priest rattled on for about an hour while the people suffered in silence as the thatched roof dripped monsoon rain on them in the stultifying heat. The purpose, apparently, of the harangue was to make the audience grateful when the collection bag was passed around, signaling that the end of the ordeal was approaching.
The desperately poor faithful,most of whom had arrived on foot from their own kampongs miles away, dropped a few lovingly hoarded bills, money which in most cases represented as much as aweek’s income, into the priest’s collecting bag. Their children would have to fill up at the buffet, because, as a result of the contribution, food would be scarce at home for some time. The chauffeur dumped the money bags into the priest’s car and then came running back barefoot through the mud bearing an umbrella so the man of god wouldn’t get sprinkled upon as he was escorted to his Mercedes to be  driven to his next destination.
After this edifying performance,the people were free to eat; and eat they did, with the clear intention of avoiding hunger for the next week. It would have been an unthinkable insult on my part to refuse to eat, so I took a bit of rice and a bit of the mixture ofmeat and vegetables that looked the least like dog and ate as little of the radioactively spicy stew as I could get away with. Yono’s Mom asked if I liked it; profoundlypleased that I responded affirmatively, she went around telling everyone howhappy she was that her bule (literally, albino) relative liked the kalaluar she had cooked for theoccasion.  Kalaluar isn’t dog. It’s bat.
This is smoked bat; very popular here.
Prepared this way it’s called paniki
We hung around a little longer, mostly because Yolanda’s father and I are expected to shake everyone’s hand and slip them some cash; a tradition of which I’ll have a little more to say ahead. By the time we had finished dispensing holiday gratuities and chatting briefly with hundreds of people who all seemed to know me, we managed to find a moment to slip away. By that time I was feeling a little queasy, but I didn’t thinkmuch of it, given that I had been up most of the night doing some real damage to my last bottle of Johnny Walker’s Black Label and I had just eaten the better part of a bat.

Back at the house, it was a perfect opportunity for a long nap. JJ had fallen asleep in the car, everyone was tired from the last few days, and the older kids were all playing with their Christmas presents. So Yolanda, JJ, and I climbed into bed. Yolanda and JJ apparently got up after an hour or two, but I slept on; when I finally awoke late in the afternoon, I was feeling decidedly ill; then it all came on at once. Violent diarrhea, vomiting until there was nothing but blood, sweats,chills and a whacking headache. This went on for the rest of the day and I had determined that if by daylight there was no improvement, I would once again commit myself to the purgatory that is an Indonesian hospital. However, by about 3 AM I began to become aware of not feeling quite so wretched and that my sprints to the toilet were becoming less frequent; now, at 4.30 I’m able to drink a little water without being nauseated. I guess I’m over it.

So I can’t really bitch too much about a Manado Christmas curse…this was Boxing Day.
In fact Christmas was kind of fun. Since school let out a week ago, we have had Falli’s seven year old daughter Patty (named after her godfather, me) and her ten year old uncle Ariel (also  my godchild, how’s that for a hardcore antitheist?) and his parents, all staying here at the house. The two older kids and JJ have dozens of little friends inthe neighbourhood and they just troop in and out of the house all day long. Ariel’s Mom is constantly cooking (we have a real kitchen) and the place is always a hive of activity.
On Christmas we had an open house. Indistinguishable from any other day, really, except we had a ton of food; I had even cooked the first turkey just about anybody here had ever had. But my favourite part was when the kids, mostly from very poor families came around requesting their ang pao.
It’s an observable cultural reality that Indonesians and most particularly Indonesians in outlying areas like here in the Sulawesis often harbour resentment of Indonesians of Chinese heritage. This could be because it is estimated that although the Chinese community makes up less than 5% of the population, 80% of the wealth is concentrated there. It could also be that until relatively recently overt displays of Chinese culture were officially frowned upon; Chinese New Year celebrations, for example, were illegal under Soeharto. Nevertheless, some of their traditions have been embraced. Ang pao is one that the kids in my neighbourhood have taken to with alacrity.
Ang pao is money traditionally given to children and poor adults in little red envelopes on significant holidays. I hadn’t realised that we were to have the kids come by in giggling groups of three, four, five and more, all with their hands out, looking for their ang pao. But there they were…the first group of five ten-year old boys all singing out for their handouts.
Yolanda told me that 20 thousandRupiah each (a little less than $2…a day’s wages for some of their parents)would be generous; so, having nothing smaller, I gave the leader of the little gang two 50 thousand Rupiah notes and told them to share it. Off they went laughing like hell.
An hour or so later I was about to get short with them when they showed up again. That is until they told me why they were back. It seems that no one in their families or group of friends could change the bills I had given them into more easily shared denominations;this had led to squabbling and, as they couldn’t resolve the dilemma, they wanted to give me back the money in the interest of preserving harmony and their friendship. They just wanted to drop off the money and go while they were still friends. They looked very sad to give up the money but, as they explained, peace was more important.
Yolanda had them wait while I dugaround in my pockets and in my desk until I came up with smaller bills for them and ensured that each had his Rp. 20,000.00. Happy once again, they ran off into the night, still fast friends and now with money for their families.
Indonesian kids are very special.
That’s the nicest Christmas storyI have, and I wanted to share it with you.
Peace and good will to all!

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